13th Century to 1966
U.S.Coverture (sometimes spelled couverture) was a legal doctrine whereby, upon marriage, a woman's legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband, in accordance with the wife's legal status of feme covert. An unmarried woman, a feme sole, had the right to own property and make contracts in her own name. Coverture arises from the legal fiction that a husband and wife are one person.
The extent of coverture in medieval England has also been qualified by the existence of femme sole customs that existed in some medieval English towns. This granted them independent commercial and legal rights as if they were single. This practice is outlined in Darcy's London custumal of the 1340s, allowing married women working independently of their husband to act as a single woman in all matters concerning her craft, such as renting a shop and suing and being sued for a debt.
In March 1776, Abigail Adams, the wife and closest advisor of John Adams, second president of the U.S., saw an opportunity in the language of natural rights, and wrote to her husband, John Adams: In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husband. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.
Coverture was established in the common law of England for several centuries and throughout most of the 19th century, influencing some other common-law jurisdictions. According to Arianne Chernock, coverture did not apply in Scotland, but whether it applied in Wales is unclear.
The earliest American women's right lecturer, John Neal attacked coverture in speeches and public debates as early as 1823, but most prominently in the 1840s, asking "how long [women] shall be rendered by law incapable of acquiring, holding, or transmitting property, except under special conditions, like the slave?"
In the 1850s, according to DuBois, Lucy Stone criticized "the common law of marriage because it 'gives the "custody" of the wife's person to her husband, so that he has a right to her even against herself.' Stone kept her premarital family name after marriage as a protest "against all manifestations of coverture".
Switzerland was one of the last European countries to establish gender equality in marriage: married women's rights were severely restricted until 1988, when legal reforms providing gender equality in marriage, abolishing the legal authority of the husband, came into force (these reforms had been approved in 1985 by voters in a referendum, who narrowly voted in favor with 54.7% of voters approving).